'Grow Your Own' Week: Garden birds

by Richard Jones

I just know [the allotment] will be a sea of weeds if we're not careful, and then we'll get a ticking off from the association secretary. We need all the help we can get at the moment. Cue: a wren.

Wren, image courtesy of the RSPBIt's Gardeners' World 'Grow Your Own' Week and I really am trying to grow my own, honest. Up at the allotment, everything's looking a bit bedraggled after the rain. The onions and garlics are looking just about OK; I'm hoping the strawberries are also on the rebound after the snow damage and I can see tight curled buds on the currant bushes. We're a bit pressed for time at the moment, and I just know the place will be a sea of weeds if we're not careful, and then we'll get a ticking off from the association secretary. We need all the help we can get at the moment. Cue: a wren.

I love this pugnacious little bird, with its haughty stance and deafening 'chip, chip, chip' call from the inside of the dense hawthorn hedge, and it's nothing if not a help in the garden. As with that other garden favourite, the robin, wrens are voracious hunters of insects, and with their inquisitive searching into every available cranny, they will get in there now to clear out the caterpillars, aphids and plant bugs before they have a chance to start reproducing. We always suffer greenfly on our peas and beans, and if the colonies get out of control the shoots starts to curl and wilt under the onslaught of so much sap-sucking. Get in there Jenny.

Not really being a birder, I've had to look up some information about Troglodytes troglodytes, and although the internet is great for finding some basic sizes, descriptions and behaviour, it is to a slightly tatty, but charming, book on my shelves that I move first. British Birds and Their Haunts by the Rev. C.A. Johns, was published in 1862 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, on the back of his success with Flowers of the Field (1851). Both books were in print for over a century, and it's easy to see why.

Illustration of a wren, from British Birds and Their Haunts by the Rev. C.A. JohnTo start, Johns' concise description is as clear as the pretty woodcut it faces: "upper plumage reddish brown with transverse dusky bars; quills barred alternately with black and reddish brown; tail dusky; over the eyes a narrow light streakā€¦". Just a few lines to aptly sum up this distinctive little creature. But it is in the several pages of text that follow, where we find the true measure of the bird, and the man writing.

It begins with several snippets of doggerel, myths, legends and archaic lore. Pity the poor Manx wrens which were hunted in their hundreds by troops of 'idle' men and boys on Christmas Day, when it was believed a wicked enchantress returned in feathered form, after evading a doughty knight by transforming and flying off through his fingers. The next day, the unfortunate birds were carried about in triumph, dangling from sticks, as the bearers sang a rude song about the previous day's hunt.

Later we come across the Reverend's own personally observed input and it still rings wonderfully true today, nearly 150 years later.

"I have known one make its way habitually through a zinc pipe into a green-house, and do much service there by picking aphides from the slender stalks of herbaceous plants, which bent into the form of an arch under even its trifling weight. While thus occupied it has suffered me to come within arm's length, but has taken no notice of me."

I'll promise not to string up my friendly allotment wren on a bough of holly, and let it get on with picking off the greenfly from the runner beans.

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Gardeners' World Web User 31/03/2010 at 14:40

Hello, It's great to see your enthusiasm about both gardening and, of all birds, the wren! A little explanation: I love gardening and try to pass that love to my 3 growing-up children. And on top, the oldest and youngest of my kids have autism. Whereas the oldest, a girl, 11y old, loves cars, the youngest, 6y, a boy, loves birds, and is especially fond of the wren, don't ask me why. It's a blessing, his obsession with birds and the wren in particular: we've recently installed 5 "houses" for the birds in our garden, and are now planning to planting much more bushes and flowers in order to attract even more birds. We live in the centre of Belgium (just east to Brussels), so there are plenty of wrens, magpies, sparrows, and the lot, but most of all titlings. The blue tits are building a nest in the garden!

Gardeners' World Web User 04/04/2010 at 23:28

Just spent the morning watching a Wren gathering nesting material, and taking it into a nest box I put up last summer. This was one of three nest boxes that I put up at the same time, and was the one that all the text books said was in the wrong position, and I was really expecting sparrows or tits. What a bonus!

Gardeners' World Web User 06/04/2010 at 08:33

Really delighted that after such a bad winter we have seen a thrush sat on her nest in the fork of a tree in our garden. The male is never far away. He stands bold and proud, ever watchful. This is only her first week on the nest and our binoculars are worn out already! We wait in trepidation, trying our utmost to keep magpies and crows away from her. The 3 dunnocks we had in november have disappeared. just hopin the cold weather hasnt finished them off.how on earth do the smaller blue tits, in abundance again this year, manage to survive and yet the dunnocks feel the cold. if someone can give me an answer to that one I would appreciate it.

Gardeners' World Web User 26/04/2010 at 12:38

I have a blue-tit who has taken a liking to my car's wing mirror's. He visits my car every morning and seems to fight with himself. Jumping and pecking at the mirror. He obviously thinks he has competition. He also deposits little parcels on my car. Anyone else know of this behaviour?

Gardeners' World Web User 02/05/2010 at 09:38

I have been removing bird deposits from near my car wing mirrors all week - this morning was the first time I saw the culprit - a blue-tit.

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